The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992
By Tina Brown
437 pages, $32
The first and greatest correspondent on journalism's Vanity beat was, of course, Ecclesiastes, who memorably reported to all of us (in King James' majestic translation) "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
All time pride of place after that belongs to John Bunyan, one of history's more famous correspondents from inside the subject. In his "The Pilgrim's Progress," he invented "Vanity Fair" that location where one finds the following things for sale: "houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures and delights of all sort, whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold pearls, precious stones and whatnot."
A visitor to Vanity Fair can, at all times, witness "jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves and rogues ... And to be seen too, are ... thefts, murders, adulteries, false swearers and that of a blood-red color."
Hell of a place for a journalist to set up shop.
So Tina Brown, the movie producer's daughter, decided, after adding pizzazz across the pond to the starchy British mag The Tatler, to come to New York, where she is immediately greeted, on her cab on the way into Manhattan from the airport, by the sound of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, on the radio, discussing oral sex.
She will eventually become the editor of Vanity Fair, either famously or notoriously depending on who is telling the tale. It was the modern heir to the famous magazine of the '30s whose ranks included Robert Benchley as managing editor and Dorothy Parker as drama critic.
The trouble with Tina is that just about everything one can say about her is correct. Tina-phobes decry the despoilings of one of the most shameless vulgarians ever to be a garbage lid's distance from literature. She became the woman who ended Robert Gottlieb's unsuccessful party at the New Yorker and wound up giving us a New Yorker that, for one issue, proudly and incredibly employed Rosanne as a "guest editor."
That "buzz" that many heard when Tina rode high and wide was the sound, to them, of a deadly flying insect inches away from administering a fatal sting to higher civilization.
On the other hand, there remain those who always thought of her as a goddess bringing life and currency and irrestibility to every magazine she ever touched. Any woman who signed up James Wolcott to Vanity Fair, after his terrific beginnings reviewing TV and rock at the Village Voice, is a woman who both knows what she's doing and knows how to do it.
Unless she decides to write a memoir about editing Vanity Fair magazine in the '80s and, as research, falls headfirst into the vat of her own diaries at the time.
Research? Nonsense, she decides. Those diaries aren't research; they are the memoir itself.
Which, typically for her, they are -- and they aren't.
So here we have the two-headed coin of the Tina problem back again writ large. Her diaries from the time are both irresistible and tedious.
If one's appetite for the inside doings of Manhattan magazines and how daily life is lived with Si Newhouse is insatiable, you came to the right banquet hall. If, on the other hand, you're content to see all of that reduced to the very occasional nibble on the relish tray, you're going to want to pass up quite a few of the book's inside offerings.
It wasn't long before I thought of a delightfully and suitably vulgar answer to Tina Brown's problem in this book which is often everything you would hope from a film producer's daughter whose resume includes Oxford and most of the better Brit writers who were her contemporaries. On the other hand, just as often, it includes a first person detour into quotidian torpor.
Why not, I thought, sail directly into total vulgarity? If she's going to give us diaries full of what a magazine editor might call "boldface names," why not actually put the significant names in actual boldface type so that readers on the hunt for Tina-esque pleasures need not tarry in too many Conde Nast offices for so little edification?
So this is not to say that any reader willing to be fair about her even divide between despoilment and delight can't find a heck of a lot of Vanity Fair lusts, pleasures, preferments, lives, souls and a whole lot of whatnot (which involves more social events than any civilized human should probably be asked to endure).
Still, boldface moments and names abound. Here is Tina in 1987 sitting next to our current president and former New York City tabloid tidbit of the early '80's, Donald Trump.
" 'Tina' he shouted. 'What do you think of the Newsweek cover story on me?' 'I haven't read it,' I told him. 'You know Tina, I could have had Time. They wanted me and I saw them too. But Newsweek scooped them. Who do you think's better, Tina, Newsweek or Time?' 'Time' I said mischievously. 'You really think so, Time? You really think so?'' His face "folded into a frown of self-castigation. 'I guess it sells more' he said in a tormented tone. 'I guess it does.' Then he brightened. 'You know how much [Oliver North secretary] Fawn Hall gets for a one-night appearance? Twenty-five thousand dollars. I've booked her for the night at Trump tower. She can't sing. She can't dance. She's so hot everyone's gonna come."
Earlier, Tina says about Trump's book "The Art of the Deal" that it has "a crassness that I like ... There is something authentic about Trump's B.S ... It feels when you have finished it as you've been nose to nose for four hours with an entertaining con man and I suspect the American public will like nothing better."
Nobody ever said that woman didn't have instincts.
Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.